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August 20, 2014
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editorial

Enriching the economic gene pool


The problem with monolithic solutions is that when they break down, nothing is available to come in to fix or replace them. Just as a biological population with a small gene pool can easily be wiped out by a new disease or predator, so a civilization can collapse when one of its Big Solutions fails. We’re seeing it now in the global financial markets, where we seem to be stuck with “too big to fail” because the entire system is held up by only a handful of banks—and as a result the megaliths only get bigger, setting the stage for another and worse meltdown. And we are seeing it in our energy systems, where a combination of Peak Oil and climate change have given us notice that Big Oil must be abandoned, creating dislocations throughout our industrial and transportation systems.

Several recent studies have concluded that a switch from petroleum-based fuels to sustainable sources could be accomplished in 20 years or so. Yet there seems to be no political will for the all-out push needed to make this happen. And we think one reason for that lack of will is our addiction to Big Solutions. We hear arguments that solar can’t possibly replace fossil fuels, or that wind can’t possibly replace fossil fuels, or that biomass can’t possible replace fossil fuels, and so on. So we give up and fall into the arms of Big Gas as our next Big Solution.

But take all the little solutions together, and not only can they replace fossil fuels, but their very multiplicity is not a problem: it’s a feature. A civilization that depends on a variety of energy solutions will be immensely more resilient and adaptable than one that has piled all its eggs into one basket.

Which brings us back to biomass and manure. We’re not sure whether any of our local hamlets could become bio-energy villages, or to what extent biomass plants might ameliorate the manure problem. But there’s a lot of other biological waste produced locally, not only from farming but from timbering operations and the like, and it’s worth exploring further whether switch grass or other energy crops could be viable here. A bio-energy village or two wouldn’t solve all our problems. But they could help to enrich our economic gene pool, and that of the nation. Might be worth a try.